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Sheep

Anyone who has seen Sheep grazing in fields knows that they are constantly munching away at the grass, looking a little bit like white clouds on a sky of green grass. The British countryside has been land formed by thousands and thousands of sheepy teeth nibbling away at the grassy hills and valleys and hooves pressing gently into the earth millions of times over hundreds of years.

Sheep are important to farmers in two ways. Some humans eat the meat of the lambs, young sheep, and the older animals, which is called mutton.

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Sheep also grow beautiful thick coats of wool which, if it isn’t cut, like our hair, will go on growing and growing forever.

This is to protect them from life outdoors in the cold and the wet and the wind. This coat has a natural waterproofing called lanolin. Their fleece can be shaved off once a year at the end of winter, when it gets to be about 6 inches thick.

After it is cut the fleece, wool, is combed and spun and woven or knitted into clothes to keep humans warm. A lamb has to be about a year old before it is first shaved or shorn. These young sheep are called shearlings.

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When they are first born some farmers put rings on the lambs tails.

Eventually the tails will fall off. Farmers do this is to prevent the animals getting something rather nasty called fly strike around their bottoms.

They can get bugs and ticks in their fleeces and you may sometimes see a magpie or other bird standing on the sheep’s back and picking out intruders.

We all need good neighbours like that

sheep4When they are first born some farmers put rings on the lambs tails. Eventually the tails will fall off. Farmers do this is to prevent the animals getting something rather nasty called fly strike around their bottoms. They can get bugs and ticks in their fleeces and you may sometimes see a magpie or other bird standing on the sheep’s back and picking out intruders. We all need good neighbours like that.

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Sheep are prey animals so even though they keep their heads down most of their lives to graze on the grass, at the same time they have to be on constant watch for other species that are going to try and eat them.

They have solved this problem by evolving amazing horizontal rectangular pupils that allow the between 270-320° vision so that they can spot any nastiness on the horizon almost all the way around them. (Imagine being able to see behind you)

This means that they can keep their eyes on the wide world at the same time as chewing the grass very close to the ground. Their mouths are very cleverly designed to do this job. Their top lip is split down the middle so they can pull it right back to get to the juicy new growth at the bottom of the blades of grass.

Like cows, they have no top front teeth and cut the grass with their lower teeth and tongue.

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Sheep are very clever and sociable animals. They will lean against walls of trees so that their companions can jump onto their backs to reach tasty leaves or fruit. A ewe, that’s a female sheep, can recognise the bleating (voice) of her babies out of hundreds of other bleating Lambs. They can recognise up to 50 different sheep and human faces and remember them for at least 2 years. Amazingly they can also identify each other from photographs and even recognise human beings from photos as well. Experiments have been done with Farmers who have twins. If the non-Farmer twin dresses up in the Farmers clothes, the sheep can still tell the two of them apart.

When Sheep are happy they are very sociable and they wiggle their tails. When the are sad or poorly, they mope around by themselves and hang their heads.

In medieval times, wool was as valuable as gold, so everybody who had any land bought sheep and grazed them so that they could sell the fleeces for loads of money. Farmers made a lot of money from selling them to people who could make fantastic garments or blankets or yarn from them. Some incredible skills and crafts grew around the uses of wool which helped humans to be more comfortable as well as developing new technologies, if you can imagine knitting or crochet or weaving as a new technology! So all over England sheep were nibbling away at the hillsides and mountains and flat marsh land. Sheep evolved different qualities of wool and colouring to camouflage themselves and to keep warm and dry.

Farmers would breed sheep of one sort with sheep of another to get a perfect mixture of traits so that their flocks could thrive in each of the different habitats.

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Places like Mudchute Farm are important these days because they nurture these ancient breeds of sheep and stop them from becoming extinct. Farmer Tom will tell you that the nibbling and trotting of these creatures shaped our countryside because wool was such a valuable commodity. Nowadays people are wearing clothes that are much more plasticky and the sheep’s coats are almost worthless, sometimes being sold for just a few pennies.

It feels very important that we should look after and value these beautiful creatures and care for them. They are a living part of our history.


The word Duck comes from the old English word for ‘diver’.

Ducks are birds that are smaller than swans or geese who also live on fresh or salt water. They have strong scaly legs and short strong wings.

There are many different sorts of Duck and several of them live at Mudchute.

A few years ago the farm designed and made a beautiful habitat with lots of luscious planting of grasses and reeds for the Ducks to enjoy around their pond. The Ducks really, really loved it and pulled up and ate every scrap.

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Ducks don’t have any teeth, but the edges of their bills (that’s the name for a Duck’s beak) are serrated, meaning it is zig zaggy, up and down, with little gaps left between the closed upper and lower bill so that they can keep food safe and ready to eat, while the water is strained away. Another clever trick that they have evolved is to swallow small bits of gravel and sand which they keep in part of their throat called a gizzard. They use this a bit like a food blender to break down the stuff they are trying to digest.

They use sand to bathe and clean themselves, because their feathers are naturally oily and water runs right off them. So they wiggle around in a dusty patch and preen the dust through their feathers to get rid of little insects called mites. This also helps their bodies to produce the waxy waterproofing oil and spread it throughout their plumage.

Female ducks lay eggs which hatch into ducklings if the Duck and Drake (male duck) have mated. She is able to lay more eggs in the summer months when there are lots of hours of sunlight.

Ducks are caring mothers and sit on their eggs to protect them and keep them warm so they hatch safely into ducklings. Very occasionally though, she gets forgetful and wanders away from the eggs. If this happens at Mudchute, the Farmer will take the ducks’ eggs and pop them under a brooding Hen to let her hatch them instead. The brand new ducklings will assume that this Hen is their mother and follow her around loyally.

duck3Ducklings are independent from the very first moment that they hatch. Their eyes are wide open and they already have a coat of downy fluffy feathers.
They can fly by the time they are two months old.

There are ducks native to every continent of the world (except Antarctica,) and they fly thousands of miles from very hot climates, to very cold ones.

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Have you ever wondered how they manage to paddle comfortably around in freezing water in the winter and flip flap over hot tarmac at the height of summer?

The answer is that they have amazingly clever feet. Their feet are very boney and sinewy covered with scaley skin, which joins up between the toes to help them swim more powerfully just like diving flippers.

They have few nerves in their feet and the blood vessels have evolved in the most brilliant way. (Blood vessels are like one way tunnels that carry the oxygenated blood of creatures from the heart and around the body. Another set of blood vessels takes the tired blood, which has delivered its load of oxygen, back to the heart to have more put back in.)

In ducks’ feet these blood vessels run in an intricate interwoven system so that the warm blood from the heart and the cool blood from the chilly feet, flow closely together and make sure that extremes of temperature don’t harm the dear old duck

Ducks are prey animals, that means that a lot of other creatures like to hunt them for food. One way that they have of protecting themselves from attack is to hang around in large numbers. They fall asleep all tucked up neatly in a sort of circle and take it in turns to be sentries on the edge of the circle. These guard ducks sleep with one eye open and watching for danger ready to warn the whole group. This means that they can chose which side of their brain stays awake at any time. All of the rest of the ducks are very alert to attack, even when they are sleeping and they can all fly away with less than one seconds’ notice.

duck5Their eyes also help protect them, sticking out slightly on the sides of their heads. This means that they can see almost all around them, a full 340°.

Amazingly their eyes are shaped so that they can see both close to and far away at the same time.
They have three eyelids, one of them is transparent so that they can close it and still see while they are underwater.

They see in colour, just like humans.

There are quite big differences between the male and female Ducks. These vary widely in each species. However it is the male Duck, or Drake, that has that rather dapper curly tail and usually, brighter coloured feathers. The female Duck has duller looking plumage than the rather fancy Drake. However when the pair have mated and their eggs are laid, both the male and female Ducks ‘moult’ losing their usual plumage. At this time neither the male nor the female can fly so they have to be super careful and attentive while they are guarding their eggs. Part of the way they can do this so well is that they now are both very dull colours, they both look the same and are carefully camouflaged so that they blend into their surroundings.

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Oh and the Drake says ‘quack’ and the female duck says ‘quack quack’… who knew?


Chickens

There are hundreds of varieties of chicken.
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Some are very fancy and looks as through they are wearing posh hats, snazzy boots or unusual pantaloons.
Every single chicken has about four thousand feathers.

They all have a coloured frill on their heads and under their beaks. They are usually a reddish colour are called combs and wattles. There are nine types of comb in different shapes and sizes.

You can tell if the bird is healthy by looking at the colour of its comb and this is also one of the ways that other Chickens pick a strong partner to flirt and mate with.

Chickens bathe in the dust to clean their feathers and skin. By doing this they keep away mites, keep cool themselves down and scrub away old skin and muck.

bufforpchicken2They enjoy getting together in groups when they have their dustbaths as if they are enjoying a day at the spa.

They are very communicative and use thirty or so sounds that they put together in many different ways, just like we put words together to make sentences, so that they can natter to each other. In fact they are very sociable creatures and they have incredible memories. They can recognise and remember over a hundred different human and animal faces.

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Male chickens are called cockerels and they are famous for being early morning alarm clocks because they crow with a cock-a-doodle-doo sound when the sun rises.

Chickens can navigate and tell the time using the magnetic fields of the earth and the sun, which is how they know when to roost, to snuggle down together in a safe space and sleep, and when to wake up.

Because lots of other creatures like to eat chickens they have to be extra careful in watching out for danger.

To do this really well they have developed great ways to be aware of threats and get to safety.

chicken4The right eye of a chicken focuses on things nearby, like food, and the left one focusses on the distance and looking out for danger.

They can see in colour, just like humans, except that their vision is better than ours because they have Ultra Violet sight as well. Because of this the mother hen can spot if her chicks are unwell even before they are hatched.

They have the most excellent ears which help them to avoid being snuck up on by something greedy. As they get older, a chicken’s hearing starts to get weaker, the cells in the part of their head responsible for hearing can regrow so that they can mend themselves and hear every bit as well as they used to.

They can run at nine miles an hour, which is very fast and comes in very useful getting away from hungry creatures who fancy a chicken for supper.

chicken5Chickens’ beaks are super sensitive with a cluster of nerves as the tip. They use their beaks to ruffle around in their feathers and root out irritating insects and dirt, to probe around for bits and pieces of food to eat, to drink through, to defend themselves and their chicks and to suck up blades of grass like spaghetti strands.

eggFemale chickens are called hens. It is the hens that lay the eggs. Only when the cockerel and the hen have mated is the egg fertilised and will hatch into a chick.

The mother hen natters to the chicks before they are hatched. While they are still all curled up in the egg she makes little trills and chirrups to them so that they will recognise her voice after they hatch.

She turns every egg around about fifty times every day so that the chicks inside grow evenly and become big and strong. Because eggs take twenty one days to hatch, that is a lot of work to do.

The tiny hatchling chick has a special sort of spur on its beak to help it crack its way out of the shell. It’s really important that the chick makes its own way out into the world. If we try to help it we interrupt the work that the baby chick has to do and we can hurt it.

The eggs that are not fertilised are the ones that people eat.

Did you know that chickens are the closest living relative to the dinosaurs?

chicken7Their DNA has been ‘sequenced’ that sort of means that scientists have worked out the formula or ingredients that makes a chicken into a chicken. These scientists also did the same thing to a fossilised shard of Tyrannosaurus Rex bone, and found that chickens and ostriches the nearest thing we have to them alive in our world today.